Health & Medicine

‘We are a team’: Sutter neonatal pioneer helped region’s tiniest babies survive – and thrive

’Listen to the nurses:’ Doctor of firsts retires with a powerful message for Sacramento doctors

The founder of Sutter Health’s neonatal intensive Special Care Nursery in midtown, Dr. Andrew Wertz was known in the medical community for training his nurses to be fierce and confident. He retired on Thursday, August 9, 2019.
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The founder of Sutter Health’s neonatal intensive Special Care Nursery in midtown, Dr. Andrew Wertz was known in the medical community for training his nurses to be fierce and confident. He retired on Thursday, August 9, 2019.

He was a pioneer in medical care for the Sacramento region’s tiniest and most vulnerable patients, who in his 45 years at Sutter Health transformed its neonatal unit into a regional powerhouse.

And at his retirement ceremony this month, Dr. Andrew Wertz shared some wisdom he’s learned over the years:

“Listen to the nurses, pay attention to what (they) are telling you,” Wertz said. “We are a team.”

His team of physicians, nurses and therapists has grown over the years from about 30 in 1984 to more than 150 today.

Many of those staff members at the Aug. 9 ceremony gave heartfelt and emotional testimony about Wertz and his impact on them, his patients, his community and his profession.

Wertz transformed Sutter’s nursery into an advanced neonatal intensive care unit in midtown known as the Special Care Nursery, according to Sutter Health and the California Department of Health Care Services. In 2008, he pushed to open a sister facility in Roseville, where he became the medical director until his retirement this month.

Sacramento’s assistant nurse manager Patty Duncan, who worked with Wertz for 37 years, said he was exceptional at what he did. His diagnoses were on the money, he worked around the clock and was constantly on the lookout for new and better ways of saving and improving lives, she said.

He trained his staff to have a similar approach. Duncan, along with Roseville neonatal unit manager Jennifer Schlager and Sacramento nurse director Chrisi Walsh, described their nursing careers as educational and enriching experiences.

“Nurses always came in because everybody thoroughly enjoyed their job,” Duncan said. “They wanted to be part of the excitement. And part of it was because (they) really wanted to work with Dr. Wertz, they really wanted to help those babies survive.”

Wertz’s methods didn’t just pay off with his staff.

When Duncan began working for Wertz in 1982, eight years after the clinic in Sacramento was established, she said babies born at or under 30 weeks of pregnancy likely did not survive at Sutter. Now, the unit can resuscitate infants born at 20 to 23 weeks.

Thanks to Wertz, in 1986 Nicholas Fisher White – a baby boy born 16 weeks premature – made the news for receiving intensive care in a highly equipped local facility and surviving.

Twin brothers Avery and Mason Ruiz, 14, had similar good fortune, being born at 25 weeks old under Wertz’s care at Sutter in Sacramento in 2005.

They weighed little more than 1 pound each. Avery faced severe lung problems, and Mason suffered a pulmonary and brain hemorrhage. But both survived and made it home with mother Andrea Burnett after 300 days in intensive care, according to a story in the Davis Enterprise.

Wertz’s unit started at Sutter’s midtown hospital, then known as Sutter General, with just eight beds and about 30 staff members in 1984. For the first three years until 1987, Wertz was the only neonatologist in the unit, his co-workers said.

But by the time the Ruiz brothers were born, it was equipped with 55 beds, eight neonatologists, 50 subspecialists and 150 nurses, and served 48 hospitals in 23 counties, according to the Enterprise report.

The number of communities served has since grown more, with patients coming in from 80 hospitals and 28 counties, according to a news release. The unit even overflowed in 2010 into a new facility adjacent to Sutter’s midtown hospital, a 61-bed nursery at the Anderson Lucchetti Women’s and Children’s Center where Duncan worked alongside Wertz until she retired this May.

Wertz has accomplished several major career milestones, his co-workers said.

He was among the first neonatologists in California, and one of just about 800 in the country, when he opened the clinic in the mid-1980s.

He was also one of the first local neonatologists to introduce therapeutic hypothermia treatment and oxygenation to babies in neonatal care, which flipped the 80 percent mortality rate of infants who required it to an 80 percent survival rate, Duncan and Walsh said.

Thanks to Wertz, Sutter was the first local hospital to allow nurses to specialize through an Advanced Life Support program and participate in a first-rate transport team that operates across Northern California, according to the California Association of Neonatologists – of which he was president from 2002 to 2003.

As Wertz brought innovative care methods into Sutter, he made sure the health workers in his clinic knew when and how to implement the procedures. “I learned to be just an exceptional neonatal nurse, and it was really because of Dr Wertz,” Duncan said. “He was a huge educator for nurses.”

Wertz’s work is a major contributor to the decline in neonatal mortality rates in Sacramento County and beyond, his staff and co-workers said during the ceremony. Since 1996, about 30 percent fewer premature babies have died annually in the county, statistics by the Lucile Packard Foundation show.

At his retirement ceremony, Wertz said he has mixed feeling about leaving the profession to which he’s dedicated a lifetime. But he is proud of his team’s accomplishments.

“We set out to do what was requested and it happened,” Wertz said. “When John Kennedy said ‘We’re going to go to the moon by the end of the decade,’ I don’t think anyone believed him but they did. Looking back 50 years, we (too) can say: ‘Wow, we did accomplish something.’”

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Caroline Ghisolfi, from Stanford University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and health care. She grew up in Milan, Italy.